Ariana Figueroa, Georgia Recorder
Members of the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee in a Thursday hearing grilled the top leader of federal prisons on how the agency would address staffing shortages and reports of abuse of incarcerated people.
“The Bureau (of Prisons) has been riddled with mismanagement and, sadly, with scandal,” said the chair of the committee, Illinois Democrat Dick Durbin.
Durbin said he was concerned about the overuse of solitary confinement and media reports of inmates being abused by staff at prisons and jails. He pressed the new director of the Federal Bureau of Prisons, Colette S. Peters, about those reports of women and men who were incarcerated and experienced sexual abuse.
Peters, who was sworn into her position in early August after serving as the director of the Oregon Department of Corrections, said BOP has no tolerance for sexual harassment or assault of any kind. She said the agency is working to “ensure that BOP employees remain guided by our core values.”
The top Republican on the committee, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, said he was concerned about BOP staff who came forward after witnessing mismanagement and abuse at certain facilities, but were punished when they spoke up.
“Whistleblowers help keep government honest,” Grassley said. “It’s been widely reported that inmates who complain face punishment, but reports also indicate that whistleblower employees at the bureau face retaliation for their speaking up. This is not how you build accountability or trust.”
Abuse and deaths
Reports of abuse of incarcerated people by staff are not uncommon. A lawsuit was filed this year against a county jail sheriff in Indiana by women who said a guard sold their key to male inmates who raped them.
Additionally, a 10-month bipartisan report by the U.S. Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by Georgia Democratic Sen. Jon Ossoff, found that the Department of Justice did not properly count nearly 1,000 deaths of incarcerated people in jails and prisons.
Peters, along with two other witnesses, John E. Wetzel, CEO of Phronema Justice Strategies in Pennsylvania, and Shane Fausey, the president of the Council of Prison Locals in Arkansas, stressed that staffing shortages are a major reason why the agency can’t function properly.
Fausey, who runs the union that represents about 30,000 BOP staffers, said that staffing levels have continued to decline each year.
“The chronic understaffing of this agency has led to an unprecedented exodus, effectively wiping out all the record hiring efforts of mid-2021,” he said in his testimony.
He said there are currently 34,945 BOP employees, compared to 43,369 in January 2016.
2 million incarcerated people
Prisons are facilities under state or federal control where people who have been convicted of a crime serve their sentences. Jails are managed by a city or county and are where most people are incarcerated while waiting for a trial, usually because they cannot afford bail.
However, some people do serve their sentences in the local jails because they have short sentences or the jail is renting that space.
There are about 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, scattered across 1,566 state prisons, 102 federal prisons, 2,850 local jails, 1,510 juvenile corrections facilities, 186 immigration detention centers and 82 Indian Country jails. Others are in military prisons, state psychiatric hospitals and U.S. territory prisons, according to data collected by the Prison Policy Institute, a think tank that studies incarceration in the U.S.
“I want you to succeed in fixing what’s broken,” Ossoff said to Peters.
He asked her if she would visit U.S. Penitentiary Atlanta, which was the subject of a 10-month report that found inmates were routinely denied nutrition, clean drinking water, hygiene products and proper medical care, and cells were infested with rats and roaches.
Peters agreed and also said she would work to make sure the agency was responsive to requests by the investigative panel Ossoff chairs.
Ossoff also asked her if BOP would publicly publish “facility-by-facility death data within BOP facilities.”
“I can certainly consult our team of lawyers and see if that’s a possibility,” she said.
Peters oversees 122 Bureau of Prisons facilities, six regional offices, two staff training centers, two contract facilities and 22 residential reentry management offices.
This story has been edited for length. Read the full story at The Georgia Recorder.
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